June 2005: Garage and early rock influences

The story always starts the same - you see a great performance, or hear a song that drives you the the brink. You pick up a guitar, microphone or drumsticks and start to pretend you are the star. Find a few like-minded pals and presto, you have a band. Don't have any talent? No problem! Rock n'roll is forgiving: just learn three chords, a few basic beats, and most of all, be yourself. Every great musician started somewhere, and in garage rock, it's precisely the awkwardness, the desperation, the raw desire and the honest spirit of musical enjoyment that makes even bad music sound good. If you listen to garage rock, you will often find mistakes, simplistic playing, primitive writing and arrangements, poor sound quality, and even blatant plagiarism. But it's still good, and to someone like me, it's even more enjoyable then hearing a complicated composition performed by practiced virtuosos. The reason, similar to the viral nature of rock itself, to attract others to it and spread the fever, is the accessibility of the music. Garage rock aficionados appreciate the feeling that garage rock performers are your peers, not untouchable idols, and that everyone, no matter what you sound like or look like, has the potential to be a fantastic rocker, even if we can't sing quite like Mick Jagger or play guitar like Eddie Van Halen.

The ironic thing about music today, is that there are plenty of musicians who can play today, singers that sing and songwriters that write great new stuff. But 40 years after The British Invasion, the field has gotten a bit crowded. In many NYC venues today, the number of musicians outnumber the fans. And between the fact that hip-hop dominates the charts today, and the widespread music file downloading, there are very few record labels signing bands anymore. The number of current national rock acts that are still backed by the record industry's all-out promotion machine is very few. Formerly huge bands are "on their own" today, needing to pay for their own travel, promotion and even recording. If "one in a million" could make it big in the 60s, today, it's more like one in ten million. That's why we need to look at the definition of "make it". Is music only worthwhile if it gets on the charts? Is music only valid if fame, money, record contracts, and groupies come with it?
Perhaps if we went back to the origins of rock n'roll, we'd find that the music gradually evolved from the blues, spirituals, work songs, and hillbilly music that the poorest segments of society played to entertain themselves, to sing and dance to, because it was a cheap, easy and enjoyable pastime. In 1910, folklorist John A. Lomax published a book called "Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads", a groundbreaking work in the field of music preservation, saving for posterity famous songs such as Home on the Range simply by transcribing the music into sheet music which had previously only been passed down from generation to generation by ear. Lomax saw the industrialization and expansion of rail and wire, drawing young people to larger "citified" areas and feared it would mean the end to the musical traditions of small towns and communities. With his teenage son Alan, Lomax ventured far and wide documenting musicians of almost every stripe, capturing some of the earliest known examples of African American music, Appalachian music and Cajun music by carrying heavy record-cutting machines to remote villages, barns, churches, pubs, homes, porches, and even fields before recordable tape was available. Lomax literally "gave voice" to the the neglected and underrepresented segments of society, including live interviews with former slaves. Among the famous musicians recorded by the Lomaxes were Woodie Guthrie, Leadbelly, Jelly Roll Morton, Muddy Waters, and Son House, widely considered the fathers of folk, blues and jazz. What happened by capturing music for the first time on phonograph, was that the music changed. Where music had been always written and practiced solely to perform live, it now could be recorded, duplicated again and again, distributed and owned. Recorded music suddenly became a commodity. The work of the Lomaxes enabled the songs of these self-taught musicians playing their self-invented music in the smallest juke joints in the country to be spread all over the world. The Library of Congress in 1928 established the Archive of American Folk Song expressly around their work. As noted by Rolling Stone writer Robert Palmer, an old black spiritual song, "Run Old Jeremiah," recorded by the Lomaxes in a tiny rural church in 1934, exhibited "rhythmic singing, the hard-driving beat, the bluesy melody and the improvised, stream-of-consciousness words...all anticipating key aspects of rock & roll as it would emerge some 20 years later".

There are great disputes over which was actually the first rock n'roll song. It's a fun argument actually - some say it was Rock Around The Clock, by Bill Haley and The Comets, the tune many say "started it all" in 1954, but Bill Haley had been already been covering a song written in 1951 by a 20 year old Ike Turner. The song was Rocket 88 the first R&B stomper with a bonafide 'backbeat', it's lyrics comparing the powerful Oldmobile model of the same name to the sexual prowess of the singer. Produced by who else but Sam Phillips of Sun Records, it was also the first example of "fuzz" guitar distortion as Ike's damaged amp produced a strangely likeable sound. The record was officially credited to Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats, but that band name was invented. Actually recorded by Ike's band, the Kings of Rhythm, Brenston was merely singer and saxophonist on the tune. Melding "jump" blues and elements of swing, Rocket 88 became the template for hundreds of other rock and roll records in musical style, instrumentation, and lyrics which used metaphor and double entendre. Ike Turner's piano part for the song was copied note for note by Little Richard on the song "Lucille" several years later. Bill Haley played Rocket 88 with his original group The Saddlemen, and brought a few changes to the sound, eventually having much greater success with Rock Around the Clock, in part because it was more acceptable for radio, used in a movie, and probably because he was white. While some may argue that Hank Williams' "Move It On Over" was truly the first rock n'roll song, or Elvis' "That's All Right, Mama" in 1954, or even earlier, Fats Domino's The Fat Man (1950), or Wynonie Harris' Good Rockin' Tonight (1948), or Freddie Slack's House Of Blue Lights (1946) or an 1930s old blues number called My Daddy Rocks Me with a Steady Roll, no one can dispute who was the first bonafide rockstar. Young Elvis Presley, a Sam Phillips find, was a spirited white boy with a real handle for Black music, a great voice, some original moves, and a great looking head of hair! He pushed rock n'roll into the national spotlight, and made the kids all want to dance and swoon. Elvis, unlike the bluesmen who played seven nights a week for decades, was rich, famous and the idol of millions, practically overnight.

Everybody has their reasons for playing music, whether it's for money, fame, groupies, or something else. Music (and especially rock music) has been driving people in great numbers to themselves dream of stardom, some desperately, since they first heard their first rock song. This dream has enthralled thousands of groups and individuals, with it's biggest spike undoubtedly occurring February 8, 1964 when The Beatles played the Ed Sullivan show and showed 72 million viewers how glorious and emotionally invigorating original music made by a rock band can be. In the years following, untold numbers of bands in every corner of the country began playing and even recording their music. Some made the charts, and coming from obscurity, saw temporary careers in the business. The Standells, the Easybeats, The Knickerbockers, The Amboy Dukes, The Blues Magoos, The Shadows of Knight, The Sonics, The Castaways, The Pretty Things, The Chocolate Watchband, The Seeds, The Shondells, The Zombies, Barry and the Remains, Creation, The Move, Strawberry Alarm Clock, The Swingin' Medallions, The Premiers and so many others are examples of bands that actually made the charts, sometimes only once, but got a chance in the spotlight, on TV, to be in movies, to be heard and enjoyed all over. However, there were also hundreds more bands who wrote great songs, performed and recorded the music of the day just as well, but who went unheard and unnoticed.

As The British Invasion grew, bands like The Animals, The Kinks, The Rolling Stones, Herman's Hermits, The Who, The Yardbirds and The Hollies got lucrative recording contracts. Many lesser known American bands found themselves unable to advance because of the sudden glut. Competition grew and it became harder for a given band to get noticed, get distribution for their record or get their record played on the radio. This resulted in "favors" and eventually illegal bribes going to radio programmers, culminating in the big "payola" scandal of the 70s. Sadly, most commercial stations today require artists to pay special "agency fees" to get a record played, and playlists are very short - they play a lot of the same songs over and over, pushing only certain records, and a select few artists, ignoring all else.

The aspect of "the scene" is important to local rock music. A "scene" is an area, such as a city or town, or maybe even a single bar, where there are several bands playing the same type of music, working together to generate more fans, and better shows. An example of this would be the Liverpool "scene" in the early 60s when bands like The Beatles, The Searchers, Gerry and the Pacemakers, and Billy J. Kramer all played, contributing to the general popularity of rock music in which each band benefited from the increased shared interest. Other famous "scenes" have occurred since, such as the acid rock scene in 1967 in San Francisco, when the Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead, Big Brother & The Holding Company, and The Lovin' Spoonful all contributed to the "happening", or the punk scene in 1977 in New York City when The Ramones, Heartbreakers, Talking Heads, Patti Smith Band, Dead Boys, Blondie, and Misfits all played regularly. Another sizable scene formed in the 80s in Seattle, when Kurt Cobain's group Nirvana led others like Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, The Fastbacks, The Supersuckers and The Gits into record contracts. The well known "scenes" are now noted in music history, but smaller garage scenes have also cropped up at various times as well, such as the Pacific Northwest garage scene about 1961, when Tacoma's The Wailers scored a #38 chart hit with an instrumental song called "Tall Cool One". This gave them enough money to start a label, Etiquette Records, and they began to help out their fellow Seattle-area bands. The Ventures, Sonics, Kingsmen, Raiders and Frantics all shared fans, club dates, and songs, creating a legendary garage scene which produced the original "Louie, Louie" sound. We know of these happenings today only because of the hit songs that emerged, but there were numerous other regional garage scenes too. The Fort Worth scene which gave rise to The Cynics, The Rising Suns, The Tracers, The Barons and more. The East Coast scene produced the Standells, The Knickerbockers and ? and The Mysterians, while the Detroit scene produced The Detroit Wheels, The Iguanas, The Hentchmen and more. After album-oriented rock took over the airwaves, all these bands and songs were forgotten, except for a few of the bigger hits relegated to the oldies stations.

The garage ethos surfaced once again when the "punk" music movement was formed in New York. About 1967, Andy Warhol was looking to foster a famous rock band, and gave funding to a band called The Velvet Underground, a snotty bunch of avant garde musicians with limited musical ability led by Lou Reed who could barely sing but had an inspiring quality made up of attitude and ultra-outlandish bohemian freakishness. Playing a show in Michigan, this band was spotted by local scenesters Wayne Kramer and Fred Smith, and another snotty rebellious kid named Jim Osterberg who was a drummer in The Iguanas. Inspired to be different, Jim became Iggy Pop and formed The Stooges, a thrown-together band who was learning as they played, using horseplay and other antics as their main attraction. Kramer and Smith formed the MC5 and wrote a few different kinds of songs, combining sped up Little Richard, and bubble gum pop with loud guitars and squealing feedback - they played for crowds so huge, they were soon signed to Elektra Records. The Stooges were signed to a lesser deal as well. These Detroit bands in turn visited New York, playing to audience members who would form their own bands, in hopes of playing this new style of music that wasn't the same old "hippie crap" being played on the radio. This new music was basic, but self assured, and brash. One band that popped up was the New York Dolls, featuring lead singer David Johansen and guitarist Johnny Thunders, who at 15 had recorded a 45 with his own garage band, The Reign. The Dolls were playing old-fashioned rock n'roll, but doing songs that were short and sloppy. They wore women's clothes, gigging regularly at The Mercer Arts Center, which attracted the attention of British promoter and clothier Malcolm McLaren, who became their manager. The Dolls inspired spectators Richard Hell and Tom Verlaine to form Television, who were so broke that they wore ripped clothes, sometimes using safety pins to keep them together. In trying to cultivate an audience, they went into an old ratty club where there was nothing going on, and offered to play the whole week. The club was CBGBs, and Television got a small crowd of regulars going to see them. The radio of the day was full of pretentious rock anthems with long runtimes and complex lyrics. Bands like The Dictators, with short, poppy songs and fun, accessible lyrics could not get airplay. Then a foursome from Forest Hills, Queens got together, pissed off, desperately bored and fed up with hippie music, discovered they all loved the Stooges and found their way to CBGBs as well. The Ramones were born when Johnny Ramone, formerly in a garage band called The Tangerine Puppets met Dee Dee, a street hustler. They enlisted Joey, a gangly druggie who had been in a 'glam' band called Sniper and added Tommy, who had never played before but was the only drummer available. Their sound changed rock music, giving birth to many more "punk" bands. After the Ramones played England, The Clash and the Sex Pistols formed, the latter being manufactured by Malcolm McLaren following the NY Dolls break up. After the Ramones played Cleveland, The Dead Boys formed. After they played DC, Minor Threat and Bad Brains formed. After they played out west, Black Flag, The Dead Kennedys and The Avengers formed. All it took wasseeing the Ramones live once.

Patti Smith's guitarist, Lenny Kaye was a rock historian who in 1972 did something incredible. He gained access to Elektra Records' vaults and compiled a collection of lost 60s garage songs into a double album he called Nuggets. Then in the 80s, another rock historian, Greg Shaw did another series, called Pebbles which uncovered and released even more lost garage obscurities. Who is Greg Shaw? Only the guy who started the music journal "Mojo Navigator" a while before Jan Wenner of Rolling Stone got the idea to uh, do a music journal too. Over the years 11 different Pebbles volumes have been released. Other reissue series' included Back From The Grave who released two volumes and Girls in the Garage who released eleven as well. The music is incredibly heartfelt, and some of the material was never even released originally, just recorded and shelved for lack of funding. All these compilations, as well as a highly publicized "Battle of The Garage Bands" sponsored by Greg Shaw's label Bomp Records in the 80s, resulted in a revival of garage rock, sometimes called neo-garage or 'contemporary garage'. Spurred on by bands like The Chesterfield Kings, the Fuzztones, The Headcoats, The Fleshtones and The Pandoras, a whole second generation of bands emerged. One band, The Romantics, aided by Greg Shaw, even made it big on the charts with "What I Like About You", a thumping, wild harmonica-laced song with a classic garage sound. More recently, a significant garage scene has been taking place in Detroit, spurred on by the Grammy-nominated White Stripes, a divorced couple who play only with drums, guitar and vocals. The White Stripes, seeing some success with hits like "Fell In Love With A Girl" and "7 Nation Army" have been instrumental in helping to popularize their fellow Detroit garage bands, including The Detroit Cobras, the Henchmen (includes the son of the original Detroit Hentchmen), The Paybacks, The Gore Gore Girls, The Witches, The Sirens, The Soledad Brothers, The Von Bondies, The Go and The Electric Six. There are great bands and scenes in other cities as well, with major garage festivals taking place annually in Las Vegas, New Orleans, Austin and New York.

Here on the East Coast, there is also a small but enthusiastic garage scene, comprised of semi-pro bands, meaning they usually just play on the weekends. The Cynics, The Woggles, Muck and The Mires, The High School Sweethearts, The Baseball Furies, The A-Bones, The Kowalskis, The Mooney Suzuki, The Charms, The Downbeat 5, The Little Killers and Thee Minks are just some examples. But garage rock is all over the world, a small presence in other countries which we sometimes are only lucky enough to find out about when they venture over here to play their hearts out. The Blue Van from Denmark, Sahara Hotnights and The Hellacopters from Sweden, Thee Ultra Bimboos and The Cocktail Slippers from Finland, The Saints from Australia, the Headcoats, The Priscillas and The Embrooks from England, The 5,6,7,8's and Guitar Wolf from Japan, and way too many more to count.
In my garage band, we put together all-garage shows pretty regularly in and around NYC. We don't make much money, but we've been lucky enough to play shows with great bands like The Downbeat 5 and The Charms. Just recently we've been given the opportunity to make a record! Although I am still broke and unknown, I am happy to be a part of a musical community comprised of down-to-earth players who care about eachother and who remember and honor the great lost music of the past, regardless of what the Billboards charts and radio stations play. Other people might measure success by Grammys, Gold Records or Hall of Fame Inductions, but success to me, is as simple as a fun night out, a few free beers, and the chance to see other garage bands play music that shows dedication, enthusiasm and honesty to it. Playing for someone, anyone, who really likes your music is a thrill. Getting the opportunity to play alongside great bands and meet great musicians is a bonus, and getting to collaborate with great musicians is "outtasight!"

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Jake is a huge fan of garage and punk rock. To see an all-garage show with The Sniffs, plus The Jukebox Zeros and Subway Surfers, head on down to Uncle Joe's in Jersey City on May 14. To hear rock n'roll music from the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s and 00s that is more varied then anything else on radio or TV, and is hand-picked by the selective ears of experienced radio deejays who are fascinated with rock music history, and have been discovering new garage gems and uncovering lost ones for decades, tune into Q104.3 FM Sunday nights at 10pm, or to WFMU at 91.1 FM Sunday afternoons at 3pm. There are uncountable archives available online, on demand right now! See all the handy links at http://vonghouls.com/gogo and Go Go garage!